But these were not pretty stories we were hearing: a rape, an armed robbery, the murder of three elderly women. The tellers, Peg, Debbie and Tanya -- the three angels, as many of the inmates started calling them -- had been victimized by these crimes, and each spoke in unrelenting detail about what happened.

The women spoke on Wednesday, day two of the three-day circle process I took part in last week, led by Jerry Hancock, a former defense and prosecuting attorney who became a United Church of Christ minister four years ago and now works under the auspices of the UCC Prison Ministry Project; and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who is currently a law professor at Marquette University. The week was part of a three-month Restorative Justice class at the prison, at the end of which the inmates who participated get a diploma, and changed lives.

...

These women spoke not with anger but almost lovingly. They were messengers. They had seen hell's landscape. Each talked of the impact of the crime on friends, family: the ripple effect. Debbie's marriage fell apart. Her children were traumatized. Tanya grew estranged from her parents. Peg held Mema's murder inside her for decades. There was simply no context in her life in which talking about it in all its detail was possible.

The context in which it was possible was Restorative Justice. We sat in a circle of equals. We listened and absorbed their words. Afterward, and over the next day, each person in the circle had chances to respond. The inmates began talking both about their own victims and their own pain. "Mema was with me all night," one of the men said on Thursday morning.

This is only a sliver of what happened over an extraordinary three days. We talked frankly and from the heart about crime; we listened to each other. Something shifted, though I can't say precisely what. Life felt sweet, fragile . . . precious.

"Be more than a survivor," Debbie urged. "Be a lifeguard."

 

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